WASHINGTON--Warburg Professor of Economics emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony Wednesday, honoring his lifetime of service to Washington and academia
A writer and professor famous for his wit as well as his economic theories, Galbraith, 91, said he was happy to receive the award from President Clinton, saying that he was "making a very great effort to look modest."
"This is one of the happier days of my life, and I'm glad my family was here to see me enjoy it," Galbraith said.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor in the country, awarded each year to Americans who have made major contributions to national interests, world peace or to other significant public or private endeavors.
The award was originally created in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman to honor Americans for wartime service and has been awarded every year since the presidency of John F. Kennedy '40.
This year, President Clinton selected 15 Americans to receive the award, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., former senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY).
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said the 15 recipients "have earned the gratitude of every American." After describing the history of the award, she introduced President Clinton, who spoke about each recipient before awarding the medals, which feature a white star on a gold and red background hanging on a blue and white ribbon.
In introducing Galbraith, Clinton told the audience that upon meeting him, one notices his wit and intellect only second and third--the first thing that stands out is Galbraith's height.
Because of this, Clinton said, Galbraith's father warned him that "We are obliged, because of our enormous size, to alter the world to our specifications."
Clinton described Galbraith's experience in Washington politics on the National Defense Advisory Committee and in the Office of Price Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904.
Galbraith also served as an ambassador to India under President Kennedy.
But most of Galbraith's career has been spent at Harvard, where he first began teaching economics in 1934.
Galbraith's academic background is rare for a Medal of Freedom recipient--most awardees are usually politicians or social activists.
"I've lived life as it came," Galbraith said. "I've enjoyed the combination of some time in Washington, D.C., some time in India, and my primary responsibility in Cambridge."
He said the Kennedy family's association with the University greatly influenced his service in the public sector.
"I have gratitude for the Harvard-Kennedy association," Galbraith said. "It took me into a political role."
After the ceremony, fellow recipient and former Senator George McGovern said Galbraith has made the field of economics more understandable.
"His legacy is that he brings economics down to the level of the common person," McGovern said.
"He's a guy who is always able to make me laugh," McGovern said. "I have profited from his council and am happy he's here today."
Recipients and their guests were treated to fresh shrimp and platters of pastries at a reception after the ceremony. Admirers, including Attorney General Janet Reno greeted Galbraith, who was seated in a wheelchair near the entrance.
Though Galbraith's time at Harvard has been interrupted by his stints in Washington and India, he still calls Cambridge home, living near the Radcliffe Quadrangle.
He is often asked to speak on campus, but says he knows how to get out of events most of the time.
"If you postpone a speaking engagement at Harvard long enough, it may be forgotten," he advised.
And he said he enjoyed the medal ceremony, getting a chance to listen to others speak on his behalf.
"I was pleased to hear the accounts of what I've done," Galbraith said. "Usually when I'm on a platform, I have to speak, so this time it was pleasant to listen."